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Dozens protest adding 15 liquor licenses to Waltham at public hearing

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  May 15, 2012 01:28 PM

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More than 75 local restaurant owners and residents gathered in front of Waltham’s City Council Monday night to oppose adding 15 new liquor licenses to the town’s existing 100.

They said the change could lead to unfair business advantages, depreciate the value of existing licenses, and change the character of Waltham.

If approved in a home rule petition to the state Legislature, the 15 new liquor licenses – 10 full alcohol, five beer and wine – would be owned by the city and leased to large restaurant chains to keep pace with commercial development in certain areas, like the Watch Factory along the Charles River and certain areas of Totten Pond Road.

Waltham's current 100 alcohol licenses are bought by restaurant owners upfront - usually in the $100,000 range.

More than a dozen people spoke at the public hearing, most railing against the idea presented by the Licensing Commission. City officials counted 76 people who stood up, by councilors’ request, to show opposition.

When asked if anyone wanted to support the additional licenses, the room stayed silent as all the attendees stayed seated.

Bill Honeycutt, owner of John Brewer’s Tavern on Main Street, said when he came to open his restaurant in 1998, he paid $140,000 for his liquor license.

“Businesses coming to Waltham won’t pay anywhere near that,” Honeycutt said. “These will be large chains who can certainly afford to spend that kind of money, whereas I had to struggle many years to pay that debt.”

Honeycutt also said the population in Waltham has not grown enough to support 15 additional liquor-serving big-box food chains, and worried that spreading the customer base too thin would put small eateries out of business.

“Fifteen licenses will oversaturate the market,” Honeycutt said. “The population in Waltham is not growing enough to support 15 licenses.”

Bob Perry, owner of Elephant Walk on Main Street, agreed.

Perry said the last 10 percent of sales makes running his small restaurant “worth it,” but adding 15 chain restaurants would take away business unfairly.

“If the population does not increase, the average sales in the city will go down – that’s economics,” Perry said. “If you add dining seats without more dining public, do the math – that’s what will happen to these established licensees.”

Perry said he would rather see the city work on developing infrastructure and helping improve local restaurants to attract more people to live in Waltham, thus increasing the population, or redistributing the additional licenses in a more efficient way.

Paul LaCava, owner of Shopper’s Café on Moody Street, objected to adding more licenses when businesses were already running on shoestring budgets.

“I have a poker night on Monday, and karaoke on Wednesday. If business was good, I wouldn’t pay out these monies to increase business,” he said. “But it is not there currently.”

He compared adding more alcohol licenses to the economic concerns raised with the passing of the casino bill last year, as the gambling resorts would offer entertainment, food and beverages – all things that local businesses would then have to compete against.

“I’m not afraid of competition, but I am afraid of unfair competition in an oversaturated market,” LaCava said. “If this is voted in, it will have a negative impact on some part of the city, and I firmly believe it will be Moody Street.”

John Grasso, owner of the Halfway Café locations in Dedham, Marlborough, and Watertown, said his Dedham business faltered once the Legacy Place shopping plaza installed 10 new liquor licenses there.

Grasso said his establishment used to rake in $1.8 million per year, but that number dropped to $1.35 million after the plaza moved in.

“In terms of day to day sales, I’ve lived it,” he said. “I understand generating [tax] revenue, but the reality is these people will not be in business. If this goes through, you will hurt a lot of these little guys.”

Grasso also said the value of his liquor license dropped drastically after the installation of the shopping center.

“Until 10 years ago, national big box restaurants offered us upwards of $400,000 for it – that license had inherent value,” he said. “But now there’s a license in Dedham being offered at $60,000, and it’s been available over a year.”

Nicole Franchi, a resident of Rose Hill Way in Waltham, said she worried the additional licenses would start a domino effect, shuttering lively local eateries and changing the character of the city.

“I grew up in Newton, but I chose to raise my family here because I love the character of Waltham,” Franchi said. “I’m concerned that by oversaturating the market, you’ll lose the character of Main Street and Moody Street, and I want to ask you to think about it.”

However, not all testimony was negative. Steven Cuccinati, representing 1265Main Developers – who are constructing the 280,000 square foot mixed-use community at the former Polaroid site near the Interstate 95 and Route 128 intersection – said restaurants prove key to the sustainability of retail developments.

“For us to create something special there, it’s imperative to have restaurants that bring a sense of gathering and community,” Cuccinati said. “The fact is that we’ve had an overwhelming response from local and national restaurants to become part of our project. I can’t speak to how many licenses should be issued, but we’re looking to create something special up there for the community.”

Waltham License Commission Chairman Wayne Brasco said last week that the intention is not to continue building up Moody Street and Main Street to take business from established restaurants there.

"We want to attract corporate business taxpayers in places like the large factory area, the Totten Pond Road area," Brasco said. "Right away, current licensees are panicking. But we don’t need any more on Moody Street."

Brasco also said leasing licenses to the chain restaurants would not be as advantageous for owners as buying and owning them.

"If you want Tempo [Bistro]'s license, you have to go buy it from him," Brasco said. "But these have no value, and the city will charge you rent. It would be better off [cost-wise] if the restaurant owned the license after a certain time."

Brasco said numerous other towns statewide have applied for and received approval from the state Legislature to add more liquor licenses, and that the requested number is usually whittled down at the state level anyway.

The licensing board would have to get City Council's approval for a home rule petition before submitting the petition to the state Legislature. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick would also have to sign off on the licensing additions.

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